Energy: The Real Thing and the Substitutes

(Zur deutschen Version.)

My understanding of energy, the world, and our civilization has been influenced, more than anything else, by the books of R. Buckminster Fuller. They have been real eye-openers for me. As of today, Fuller’s perspective and line of reasoning is becoming more and more mainstream and common sense. But still, in discussions, I frequently encounter people who are just as stunned and baffled by Fuller’s way of looking at things as I was when I first came across it.

So I decided to write a small summary of it, and back it up with some links to provide solidification for the facts that Fuller made me aware of.

There is no energy crisis, only a crisis of ignorance. — R. Buckminster Fuller

Almost all of our energy comes from a single source: the sun. While scientists on earth are still trying in vain to light the fire of nuclear fusion, we do have a working nuclear fusion reactor right outside our windows. It is located at a comfortable safety distance of 150 million kilometers from Earth, and we are shielded from the dangerous parts of its radiation by an intricate structure, the Van Allen Belt. This reactor is so huge, it emits billions and billions of times more energy than our civilization could possibly ever use. Even the tiny fraction of that energy which hits our small blue marble called Earth is several thousand times more than our current world energy consumption.

Practically all sources of energy that we know of are more or less indirect forms of that solar energy. Wind is air that is differentially heated by the sun. If we put propeller blades into that air stream, we are using the atmosphere as a kind of giant turbine, driven by the sun. Hydroelectric power — currents of water flowing downhill — is kinetic energy in water that was heated and vapourized by the sun, thus lifted up into the atmosphere, and then fell down in the form of rain or snow to slightly more elevated levels than where it was initially vapourized.

Fossil fuels (coal, gas, and oil) are the concentrated remains of photosynthesis. Fire is the sun unwinding from a tree’s log, as Buckminster Fuller put it. It’s a stored form of solar energy. In fact, it’s a highly concentrated form of solar energy that took millions of years to produce. That’s why it is so remarkably efficient, and why it is so easy to unlock the energy from that form of storage. The reserves of fossil fuels are finite, however, and their amount pales, compared to what the sun delivers to our doorstep every single day. It’s one of my favourite numbers: The amount of energy stored in all the remaining fossil fuels in the Earth’s crust equals about twenty days of sunshine.

Fossil fuels, therefore, can be considered a kind of kick starter for a civilization: very easy to activate and use, but only in very limited supply. There seems to be just about enough of them so that a civilization can develop means to tap into the real source of energy: the sun itself.

Photovoltaic cells of today’s technology, covering an area about the size of Germany or Pennsylvania, would meet the current world energy consumption, if located near the equator. Move it away from the equator a bit, make it a bit larger and spread it out around the globe, and our energy needs are provided for. It is true that some problems remain to be solved: For example, better short-term storage for electricity needs to be developed, so that solar power can be made more readily available on the night side of Earth. Some of our technology needs to be transformed so that it can be powered by electricity, rather than combustion engines. All of that is conceivable, doable with very little extension of our current technological means.

That which we call nuclear power, by contrast, is a rather awkward way to unlock energy from matter. The fuel for nuclear fission reactors (Uranium) is also an indirect form of solar energy. Uranium is a heavy element, having been bred in the fusion reactors of several generations of stars over billions of years. We can unlock the energy from that kind of storage, too, but it results in highly toxic waste for which we have currently no means of dealing with, except burying it as deep as possible in the Earth and forgetting about it. That doesn’t sound very convincing to me.

It is true that technology might some day allow us to solve the problem of nuclear waste. It is my impression, however, that the technological gap that we need to bridge in order for solar energy to be viable, is much smaller than what would be needed to solve the problem of nuclear waste. Given the fact that we are literally drowned by a form of energy that shines directly at us, I think it is self-evident which is the most reasonable technology to invest in.

When I grew up in the nineteen seventies and eighties, I was under the impression that there is “real energy”, the kind of energy that keeps Daddy’s car running and the house warm in the winter, but that this real energy might some day run out and then we’ll be screwed, having to make do with some weak substitutes like solar panels and wind mills, which will be nowhere near as efficient as the real energy. These substitutes even come with a strange name: renewable energy, which really does make them sound like a poor substitute for the real thing.

I have since learned that it is just the opposite. Fossil fuels, which have kept the industrialized world running from its beginning, should be called for what they are: preliminary energy, a kind of kick starter to advance to the next level. The real thing is the sun, our big fusion reactor in the sky, which will be with us for billions of years to come. The energy that we derive from this source, as directly as possible, is what deserves the name real energy, direct energy, or maybe simply:energy.

As I said above, I owe this line of reasoning mostly to the books of R. Buckminster Fuller. As a starting point, I recommend his master work, Critical Path, particularly the Introduction. This is where his ideas are best developed, the sum of a life-time’s thinking. I also recommend his earlier book, the Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, which is available in full text online, although it does not quite reach the level of excellence found in Critical Path.

For a very thorough review of Critical Path, including long passages from the book itself, go here.

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